There has been considerable recent news coverage of legislative action to abolish the North Coast Railroad Authority and create a trail through the currently unused Eel River canyon portion of the railroad right-of-way, which would be turned over to a new public agency.
I recently retired from the NCRA board after 24 years and would like to dispel some misconceptions and outright falsehoods that have crept into the dialogue.
First, a little history is in order. The NCRA was formed in 1991 to preserve the 312 miles of the former Northwestern Pacific Railroad from imminent abandonment. The Legislature passed two bills — one to form the NCRA to manage the railroad and the other to fund the agency. Then-Gov. George Deukmejian signed the first bill and vetoed the second, in essence creating an agency with a mandate to preserve and develop the railroad and no funding source to perform its duty.
This has been the challenge for the agency since the inception and has been exacerbated by a hostile bureaucratic environment in Sacramento, which never embraced the concept to begin with. This hostility continues with the California Transportation Commission’s criticism of NCRA’s financial challenges. They forget, conveniently, that they and the Legislature have their fingerprints all over the problem.
The nine-member NCRA board is appointed by the four member counties. The public has benefited greatly from the presence of the unselfish citizens who have served in an unappreciated (and many times criticized) role. Had they, and the two-person staff, not persisted, any discussion of trails would be moot. The railroad would have been abandoned, and the invaluable right-of-way lost for all time.
Much has been said recently about “the debt-ridden NCRA,” lending an Impression of mismanagement. This conveniently ignores the elephant in the room that caused the debt.
The fact is that the NCRA has made steady progress in reducing debt through leases and sale of surplus property and is on the threshold of repayment of all creditors. Even these solutions have been criticized as “selling public assets” by the California Transportation Commission. This ignores best practices in the private sector, where business convert redundant assets to cash for investment in needed assets.
Also not mentioned is the skillful deployment by the NCRA of more than $70 million in federal and state funds to rebuild and reopen the southern 70 miles of track for freight service with its private operating partner, the Northwestern Pacific Co. Current rail shipments of grain and lumber are benefiting the economy and the environment and are a promising endorsement for future expansion of service to Willits.
The NCRA’s financial operations have passed the scrutiny of independent auditors for many years, and these audits are a matter of public record.
The NCRA has embraced the concept of “rail banking” the Eel River division to preserve it for a trail or possible future rail use. Presently there is no economic justification for re-opening that section. That said, there is potential for a Humboldt Bay short-line to serve the port in Eureka and a tourist train around Humboldt Bay.
My final concern regards proposals to abolish an efficient (if underfunded) agency with a good record of partnering with trail initiatives in Arcata, Ukiah and Healdsburg. NCRA could work with trail advocates in the Eel River Canyon. There is no need for new agencies to start from scratch without the institutional knowledge possessed by the current NCRA directors.